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Kaija Saariaho: L'amour De Loin / Nagano

Release Date: 10/13/2009 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 801937   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Daniel BelcherMarie-Ange TodorovitchEkaterina Lekhina
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


SAARIAHO L’amour de loin Kent Nagano, cond; Ekaterina Lekhina ( Clémence ); Marie-Ange Todorovitch ( Pilgrim ); Daniel Belcher ( Jaufré ); Berlin R Ch; Deutsche SO Berlin Read more class="BULLET12b">• HARMONIA MUNDI 801937 (2 Hybrid multichannel SACDs: 121:27 Text and Translation)

Kaija Saariaho is well known for her profoundly luminous electronic and electroacoustic compositions. Finnish by birth, but a long-time resident of Paris, she studied at the Helsinki Sibelius Academy and at IRCAM, where her basic mode of composition, using precisely calibrated timbre and pitch manipulation within tapestries of sound over relatively stable bass pitches, was developed. Unattracted to opera through most of her career, she had not, until this work, created a large-scale work for the stage. Clearly she was ready. Recipient of the 2003 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, acclaimed by one critic as likely the first great opera of the 21st-century, L’amour de loin , Saariaho’s hauntingly dreamlike first opera, was premiered by co-commissioning companies in Salzburg, Paris, and Santa Fe beginning in 2000. Seen in seven productions in nine years—most recently by the ENO—it has proven amenable to a variety of different productions, from Sellars’s original symbolic and generally static staging to Daniele Finzi Pasca’s frenzied Cirque du Soleil- inspired imagery in London.

Those who equate modern with astringent and dissonant need not fear: this is music that caresses the ear with its austere beauty; the connection with French Impressionism has often been made. Like Messiaen in his Saint François d’Assise , which inspired Saariaho to try her hand at the genre, she works in long time frames of tonal ambiguity, full of exquisite color and texture. In L’amour , Saariaho uses subtly modal vocal lines and hints of archaic ornamentation to suggest the medieval while bathing those lines in restless layers of orchestra and electronics, punctuated by ethereal tuned percussion. Her work requires of the listener only a willingness to give the music time to create its effect.

Beautiful as is Saariaho’s music, Lebanese poet Amin Maalouf’s inventive retelling of the 12th-century story of idealized love is an equal marvel. Taking as its starting point a legend regarding historical troubadour/prince Jaufré Rudel and his songs of courtly love to a distant Eastern lady, it explores the obsessive idealization of the beloved in those songs and imagines an attempt actually to consummate that love. Set in motion by the Pilgrim, the clash of expectation and reality drives the story as formerly jaded Rudel sickens himself over fears of meeting his imagined paragon, while vain, discontented Clémence rightly fears her inability to live up to her lover’s image of her. “If this troubadour had known me, would he have sung with such fervor? Would he have sung thus if he had sounded the depths of my soul?” she muses upon hearing the Pilgrim sing a paraphrase of verses from Rudel’s “Lanquan li jorn son lonc e may.” Death leaves the love unrequited, for it is a merciful God who takes pity on the troubadour for his folly. She, left to mourn that which never was, is apparently shaken out of her self-absorption by the experience. This is a relative rarity among opera librettos: elegant verse—even in translation—and a reflective story that yields new insights each time it is heard.

Prior to this release, the opera has been available in a Deutsche Grammophon DVD release of the 2004 Finnish National Opera production in Sellars’s staging. Featuring the uniquely gifted Dawn Upshaw, for whom the part of Clémence was written, the intensely focused Jaufré of Gerald Finley, and Monica Groop’s serenely stoic Pilgrim, it is an emotionally gripping experience: the seemingly perfect way to fall in love with this opera. Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, a frequent interpreter of Saariaho’s music, and presenting, as it does, the vision of the composer’s chosen director, it seems to define definitive.

What a surprise, then, that this new recording actually reveals more of the work’s beauty and psychological depths than its predecessor does. Listening to this audio-only release, one discovers that Sellars’s highly kinetic, close-up-dominated visual production actually distracts from the music. Malouff’s naturalistic stage directions, in the libretto, provide a more richly human frame to the playing out of the characters’ passions than Sellars’s stark, stylized presentation. The chorus of friends and companions, unseen in the Sellars staging, is physically present in Malouff’s libretto and in this recording, creating a context to the lovers’ gathering obsession that the distanced voices cannot produce. Most important, one feels more connection here with the protagonists. Upshaw is superb, but Ekaterina Lekhina—with a brighter voice that is less earthy and emotion-laden—produces an equally valid portrayal, rather sharper and more conflicted and self-aware. Daniel Belcher, a fine actor with a less emphatic vocal presence than Finley, creates a credibly morbid character, one whose hypersensitivity would more reasonably be given to this obsession and death. Most telling, though, is Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s scheming Pilgrim. Where Monica Groop’s Pilgrim seems placidly detached from the situation he is creating—though he harbors his own affection for Clémence—Todorovitch, with a more tightly focused tone and more pointed and insinuating delivery of the text—being a native speaker probably helps—offers a Pilgrim of less pure purpose, clearly intent on creating this unhealthy match. Kent Nagano, who conducted the Salzburg premiere, is more sensitive to texture and color than Salonen, and, through the efforts of the superb Deutsche Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, the score surges and fades more tellingly. Nagano’s slightly faster tempos add a touch of urgency, while the one decidedly slower tempo, for the act IV sea journey of Jaufré and the Pilgrim, intensifies that scene’s sense of foreboding.

None of this is to suggest that the Salonen recording on DG is anything but a fine performance. Fanfare critic John Story declared it so, and more, in issue 29:5. I wouldn’t wish to part with either recording. But, if I had to choose one, it would be this new release, with its beautifully detailed sound—the SACD somewhat more transparent than the CD—and its engaging portrayals. The most urgent recommendation, of course, is to get to know this glorious opera.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

L'amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho
Performer:  Daniel Belcher (Baritone), Marie-Ange Todorovitch (Mezzo Soprano), Ekaterina Lekhina (Soprano)
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2000; Finland 

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